Keystone XL and the payroll tax cut: a minor victory for the GOP, but at a much greater loss?

By Brien Southward

The debate over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has been a source of much political turmoil in Washington, D.C. and around the nation. One of the most significant recent disputes revolves around an attempt to attach a rider authorizing construction of the pipeline to a bill that would extend a payroll tax cut for another year.

Although the Republican Party has successfully pushed President Obama into making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days, their handling of other issues of importance has faced staunch criticism. On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal compared the GOP’s handling of the payroll tax cut debate to a “circular firing squad.”

Those sympathetic with the Republican cause count the 60-day window for a decision on Keystone XL as a minor victory, but their handling of the payroll tax debate may indeed be a far greater loss. The Republican Party’s electoral confusion and political fragmentation has enabled the Democrats to do a kind of rhetorical judo, framing Obama as a defender of tax cuts for working people while still allowing him to win the favor of environmentalists and other opponents of the pipeline.

Environmental groups have criticized the construction of the pipeline primarily on the grounds that the oil it will be carrying is extracted from the vast tar sands in Alberta, through a process that involves strip-mining and resource-intensive processing and refining. They also argue that it might only prolong America’s dependence on fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources, putting the United States at risk for an eventual collapse of its energy infrastructure. There are also concerns that any leak in the 1700-mile pipeline, which runs from well into Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, could prove an enormous inland environmental disaster.

In contrast, industry sources argue that construction of the pipeline is necessary to lessen America’s dependence on oil from sources other than North America, and that it would prove an economic boon for both the United States and Canada. TransCanada and the Republican Party both claim the Keystone XL pipeline will provide 20,000 jobs, consisting of 13,000 in construction and 7,000 in manufacturing.

At other times, proponents of the pipeline have claimed it could create 140,000 or even 250,000 jobs. These larger estimates include hypothetical economic consequences of building the pipeline, down to the level of the number of restaurant workers it would take to serve the thousands of construction workers working on the pipeline. Opponents argue that the short-term economic consequences of the construction phase of the pipeline project results in vastly inflated numbers.

There still seems to be a lot of work to be done in assessing both the potential gains from the Keystone XL pipeline and its long-term risks. Regardless of how the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline works out, one thing is certain: the Republican Party has backed itself into a corner that it will take a much greater deal of internal coherence to escape, especially if they want to win in the 2012 election. Whether or not this ultimately results in a change in the United States’ energy infrastructure remains to be seen, but for political pundits, the debate still rages.

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